When babies are born, one of the first questions parents and others ask is: “Is it a boy or a girl?” At birth, the answer to this question is based almost exclusively on the appearance of the genitals. A penis equals a boy and a vagina equals a girl. Genitals that don’t fit one or the other of these categories are cause for concern and even intervention.
Certainly departures from the typical male or female body could signal a genetic condition with serious health implications or the likelihood of infertility in the future. But it is also the case that people feel profoundly uncomfortable with variations in biology, particularly sex changes, ambiguous genitals and atypical secondary sex characteristics.
Consider the pop-psychology theory known as the “Napoleon Complex” or the “Short Man Syndrome.” According to this theory, men such as Napoleon compensated for their short stature through aggression and the quest for power. But this theory, which has been challenged by researchers, only makes sense if shortness is seen as a disadvantage that men need to overcome. An evolutionary biologist might argue that larger, stronger men have an advantage in that they could be or seem to be more able to provide for and protect their families. But this explanation would assume that, by nature, men rather than women are doing the providing and protecting.
In part then, reactions to bodies are connected to interpretations of appropriate roles for women and men. We’ll explore this subject more in subsequent modules on “Gender” and “Sex and Gender”. But we also need to think more about why we want people to be clearly identifiable as either male or female and pay special attention when they cannot be slotted neatly into one category or another.